Since 2017, India has been governed by a single tax regime with the introduction of Goods and Services Tax (GST) after almost two decades of deliberations and hard work. It has facilitated the unification of the Indian market by allowing free movement of goods and services across the state borders which, earlier, acted as the major barriers in such mobility.
The multiple tax rate slabs for different categories of the product, processes glitches, and inadequate IT infrastructure, exclusion of alcohol, electricity, real estate, petroleum, and slowing down of the growth rate have made this system more complicated over time. GST system has found itself in a very awful situation following the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic downturn prevailing in India.
The states have now started to claim their share of compensation from the union government which, albeit surprisingly, has expressed its inability to pay the compensation to states due to the revenue foregone and current financial constraints.
The government of Kerala has even defined this denial as a “betrayal of trust”. With this background, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi organized a webinar and panel discussion- The GST Conundrum: State of India’s Indirect Taxation System in the Times of COVID-19 Pandemic and Recession, on September 11, 2020.
Prof Atul Sarma, Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development (CSD), New Delhi highlighted that the taxation system before GST was not efficient because of the multiple nature of taxes. This coupled with different slabs has dented the revenue earning potentials of the states and thereby, hindering the development of the Indian economy. GST, as an alternative tax regime, has featured in policy discussion since the 1950s. A taskforce established in 2003 headed by Prof Vijay Kelkar and the Union Budget of 2006 proposed a GST. After prolonged and in-depth deliberations with the state governments, the Government of India finally introduced the GST or the One Nation One Tax, on July 1, 2017.
In the process of consultation of states, there was an amendment to compensate the states to the extent of shortfall over 15% of overall tax through the cess to be levied on sin goods. But the compensation mechanism has not yielded an adequate amount of tax proceeds. The maximum amount that can be processed is about Rs 90000 crore, whereas, the requirement stands at Rs 2.35 lakh crore.
The Union government has subsequently suggested two alternatives to states which are being faced with opposition by states. Prof Sharma expressed his concern for the fiscal health of the Union government in the wake of COVID-19 and the attendant unwillingness of the government in compensating the states from the Consolidated Fund of India. He opined that GST was pushed hurriedly with very little attention being accorded to building the IT infrastructure necessary for GST implementation.
Prof Rajeev Gowda, Ex-Member of Parliament, eminent academician, public intellectual, and politician highlighted that the then finance minister Shri Arun Jaitley projected a 14% increase in tax revenues every year with the implementation of GST, which he thinks was a very unrealistic assumption. He also pointed out two crucial aspects: firstly, there was a surplus in the collection of taxes because the cess was levied on demerit goods and the Union government absorbed this surplus into its own resources.
Secondly, when states raised their concern about any future shortfall of tax collections, then the Union government ensured them of due compensation. But Union government’s recent announcement regarding their inability to compensate is clearly antithetical to the constitutional amendment of the GST Compensation Act.
He opined that states are at the forefront in fighting COVID-19, but they have not been allocated enough resources, not even the constitutionally mandated compensation on account of shortfall in tax revenue. So, the states are essentially left with two options – either to cut capital expenditure or to borrow.
In the case of borrowings, the state will have an indirect sovereign guarantee on their loans, unlike the centre which has the better capacity to borrow at lower rates as well as repay their loans. So, one possibility could be to borrow in one tranche and then allot the same among the states according to the Finance Commission formulae.
Moreover, the Union government can raise loans from multilateral institutions, monetize public sector undertakings, and so on. He stated that the response by the central government to the state’s losses demean the ethos of federalism. He further mentioned that even before the pandemic when petrol prices were lowered in the country, the states had to bear the brunt of cesses.
All these signify the gross mismanagement of the federal fiscal structure of India. He remarked that the states may start introducing emergency surcharges to raise resources and some states would borrow and pay off debts over a course of time.
Prof R. Kavita Rao, Director (acting) and Professor, National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), New Delhi highlighted that initially the compensation package was designed in a generous manner to encourage states to accept the new tax regime for the first five years. Thereafter, the issue of stabilization of the GST system and revenue-neutral system was expected to be tackled between centre and states, however, the current pandemic has brought the parties to face a very tough reality.
The Union government underwrites the potential losses since resources can be raised from anywhere to meet the shortfall. Recent financial downturn reduces the revenue of the governments, and, at the same time, increases the compensation requirements of the state governments. One way to meet the revenue shortfall is to increase the cess rate which could, however, be ineffective during an economic crisis.
Prof Rao expressed her concerns about the plausibility of financial support from the Union government to the states in dealing with the revenue shortfall after the expiry of the five-year compensatory period. COVID-19 has only preponed this scenario. Prof Rao also highlighted that rates under GST have undergone changes many times during its three years of implementation and, therefore, hardly have time to settle into a structure and compliance system.
Even the voting rights have been constructed in such a manner that neither state nor the Union can unilaterally change the GST rate. In practice, the Union and the state governments have passed their own laws, but lack of uniformity pervades the entire set of laws.
She suggested that in the current scenario since the indirect tax has a regressive effect on demand and purchasing power, a reduction in GST should be borne by the CGST component while keeping the SGST component the same. Mere including excluded items (major revenue-generating commodities) in the GST tax slab would not increase revenue because tax credits reduce the tax collection and those are collected anyway.
She further also suggested that when Union governments can propose to states that the principal amount of borrowings will be paid out by compensation cess, then it is possible for Union government to borrow themselves from the same resources at lower interest rates, which can be spread among states at a reasonable rate of interests. Prof Rao also highlighted that more expenditure needs to be made in non-capital intensive sectors and activities for funds to reach the hands of the poor, and not on bridges and infrastructure at this time.
Mr T K Arun, Editor, The Economic Times, said highlighted that any compensation mechanism involves injury, an injured party, and the party responsible for providing compensation. In the present case, the Union government expects the state governments – the injured party – to compensate themselves. This situation is becoming a “repentance” for states for accepting the GST regime.
By forcing state governments to borrow to meet their revenue shortfall would effectively increase the burden on the economy in coming years as they will get trapped in the debt spiral. Moreover, the tax to GDP ratio is lower than 16% and after the introduction of GST, the proportion of indirect taxes on GDP has remained unchanged (around 9% of GDP), which means the tax burden has never gone up or gone down, though the tax collections should have been increased.
He pointed out that many products such as petroleum, tobacco, alcohol, power which are major revenue earners are left out of the GST tax slab. Revenue potentials of GST could be enhanced by bringing all these products into the GST network, and undertaking a complete tax audit trial for efficacy in overall tax collection, regime, and public finance. It would then be easier to catch hold of the tax evaders. Rigorous audit trail under GST needs to be supplemented with requisite economic analysis, harnessing digital technology like big data analytics, AI.
Dr Suranjali Tandon, Assistant Professor, NIPFP, New Delhi highlighted that recent GDP numbers have shown a contraction of almost 24% with a severe negative impact on tax collections. Among the sectors, real estate and construction have been hit hard followed by the manufacturing sector. Only the agricultural sector has experienced positive growth of 3.5%.
This implies that the GST burden will be carried out by certain sectors. She stated that IGST numbers are severely affected and e-way bill numbers are not back to pre-COVID levels, signifying a lack of movement across the states. And further implies that certain states will be severely affected.
Therefore, their compensation as well as borrowing requirements will be different. Dr Tandon, in conformity with the views of the panellists, argued for borrowing by the Union government and allocating the same among the states as per their requirements and not to focus on FRBM clauses at these challenging times for speedy recovery.
Dr Arjun Kumar, director, IMPRI, underscored that the impending GST compensations to State governments need to made available sooner to effectively stimulate aggregate demand, in the spirit of the cooperative and fiscal federalism, especially during the pandemic and recession. Further delays would not minimize the collateral losses and only make the situation worse for the economy and GST system, getting to a situation that can be called – too late too little.
In all the major economies around the world such as the USA, China, the national governments through various means are making timely funds/loans available to sub-national governments, often generously keeping away the capacity utilization and other bottlenecks. The GST system is undoubtedly one of the major reform stories, nearly doubling the GST registered entities to around 1.1 crores.
However, it requires further reconstruction to enable ease of doing business and ease of living, especially focusing on improvements such as simplification of filling processes, e-way billing, e-invoicing, rationalization of slabs for many products, enabling IT user face and digital infrastructure, economic analyses, data analytics, etc. The current GST conundrum, pandemic and recession, clearly is more than a short term and a rather medium-term challenge.
To overcome this situation, the coordinated efforts of the centre and state governments in the federal system are necessary, nonetheless, the sufficient ingredient would be instilling trust and confidence among each other towards realizing the vision of a $ 5 trillion economy, New India, and #AtmaNirbharBharat.